Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Updated Tags

Ah, remember the old logo?  So nostalgic!  Okay guys, I’ll have a spectacular new checklist next week, but in the meantime, here’s a wealth of material: This summer I took advantage of my time off and spent a few days going back and tagging the last several years of posts! Now when you click on any of my seven main skills of writing, you’ll get all 9 3/4 years of posts on that topic:


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: A Small Thematic Detail in “Lady Bird”

In the opening moments of Lady Bird, Lady Bird and her mother are wrapping up their college visit trip around California, and they finish listening to the audiobook of “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The book, of course, is about a road trip from hell: The Joads are victims of the dust bowl in Oklahoma, but handbills lure them to California, promising a life of ease (“You can just reach out and pick fruit off the trees.”) They arrive to find that California is not nurturing after all, but rather brutally inhospitable. The daughter’s newborn baby dies, but she finds a man starving to death and offers him the only succor he’ll find in California: the grown man suckles her breast milk.

Just enough of the audiobook plays in the movie that, if you’ve read the book, you’ll be reminded of that ending, but if you haven’t you wouldn’t know what was going on. Any meaning the audience gets from that detail is dependent on the knowledge of the book we bring with us. But if you do know the book, the thematic meaning is rich.

Lady Bird is with her own un-nurturing mother, roaming California backroads looking for a place that will take them in, but she lacks high enough grades to impress them (She ain’t got the do-re-mi) and she concludes over the course of her road trip that California is not a state where she’ll feel nurtured. She wants to live through something. She is rejecting the breast violently when she jumps out of the car.

The main role the audiobook plays in the film is just to indicate that they’ve been at peace for 21 hours of driving, enjoying something smart together, but tensions are just waiting to explode as soon as the pacifying agent is turned off. But Gerwig had a choice to make: Which book? Writing involves dozens of such choices (and directing involves hundreds of such choices), and each is a chance to pack the story with more meaning, even if it will only be meaningful for a subset of your audience. Make meaningful choices every time you get the opportunity.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have Your Hero Take Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

Audiences want heroes to change, especially at the end, but we also have our bullshit detectors going at all times. We know that we ourselves have failed to fix our own problems, no matter how hard we’ve tried, so we know that any change the hero makes will have to be hard-earned and limited to be believable.

In some movies, like Groundhog Day, the hero is totally transformed into a different person in the end …but only after being trapped in the same day for a very long time (In the screenwriter’s mind, it was more than 10,000 days, though the final film doesn’t seem to go that far.)

But in more realistic movies like Lady Bird, characters don’t get that much chance for transformation. Like us, they can only change so much. In return for our movie ticket, we’re going to demand some change, but we’re going to call bullshit if we get too much.

In any movie where a character refuses to be called by their real name, there’s a natural ticking clock counting down to when she “accepts herself” and acknowledges the name. (Of course, the concept of “real names” has been challenged quite a bit in the two years since this movie came out, but let’s not get into that) This movie does deliver the pay-off we expect, but it immediately undercuts that. She’s at a party at her new college in New York City and a cute guy asks her her name:

  • COLLEGE BOY: What’s your name?
  • LADY BIRD (considering): Christine. My name is Christine.
  • COLLEGE BOY: I’m David.
  • They shake hands.
  • DAVID: You shake.
  • CHRISTINE: I shake.
  • DAVID: Where are you from?
  • CHRISTINE: Sacramento.
  • DAVID: Sorry, where?
  • The music was too loud, he hadn’t heard her. Second try:
  • CHRISTINE: San Francisco.
  • DAVID: Cool! San Francisco is a great city.

So she actually takes two steps forward, admitting to her name and her city, but then she takes one step back, abjuring the city when she gets a second chance. We believe in her hard-won self-acceptance, because we see that it’s got limits.

She’s not Bill Murray, she hasn’t totally transformed, she’s changed just enough to gratify our investment in her journey, and it’s so much more gratifying because it’s so small and believable. We’re still rooting for her to one day admit to a boy that she’s from Sacramento, but we’d rather she be real than right in this scene.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Sometimes the Hard Way is the Bad Way

In my recommended structure I sum up the second quarter as “the easy way” and the third quarter as “the hard way”. The hero has a problem to solve, commits to it at the ¼ point, tries the easy way for the 2nd quarter, expecting a quick resolution, then everything culminates in a big crash at the midpoint, so the hero starts over again a little wiser, identifies a better and harder way to solve the problem, fails again at the ¾ point, finally adopts a corrected statement of philosophy, sets off on the real right path, and heads off into the finale.

So usually the hero is trying a better (but still not best) way in the third quarter. But not always. “Lady Bird” shows us a not-uncommon tweak on the structure.

The titular heroine still tries the easy way in the second quarter, has a big crash, tries a harder way in the third quarter, fails again, then gets on the right path, but in this case, the easy way was naïve-but-admirable, and the hard way turns out to be the bad way.

But the structure still works: It’s still the case that she’s working harder and more resourcefully and accomplishing more. The only difference is that, in conjunction with that change, she loses her moral compass.

This puts the audience in a tricky relationship with our heroine: We love her, so we’re hardwired to want her to get what she wants. In the second quarter, that’s no problem, because we love everything about what she’s doing. We love her best friend Julie, we love that she’s decided to fix her life by starring in a Sondheim musical, and we love her love interest Danny.

But then, in the big crash, Danny turns out to be gay, so we’re glad she moves on, and glad that she decides to be more active and canny in the third quarter, but, suddenly, she starts alienating us along the way. She cruelly ditches her best friend and the theater program, pursues a friendship with a mean popular girl and a relationship with a cool, anarchistic boy.

We quickly realize after the midpoint, “Whoa, I still love Lady Bird, but I no longer want her to get what she wants. I’m rooting for her to fail, or, if she’s going to succeed, to make it out the other side of this and be reunited with her original decency.”

And that’s what happens: She cannily befriends the bad girl and beds the bad boy, but then she ditches them at the last moment and runs back to her previous best friend. She gets a corrected statement of philosophy and gets her life back on track, so then we can fully root for her again in the final quarter.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: How to Write a Comedy Without Jokes

In her DVD commentary, “Lady Bird” writer/director Greta Gerwig says

  • “One thing that was really important to me is that none of the actors ever played the jokes as jokes, or the things that I thought would be funny, that they played them totally sincerely, and I cast actors who are allergic to anything that doesn’t feel true, and I remember talking to Saoirse early in the rehearsal process and she said, “Oh, I’m--I’ve never done a comedy” and I was like, ‘Don’t think of it as a comedy. Play it 100% real and it’ll be funny.’ And she did, and it is because the reason, I remember the first time I heard her read it, I was like, ‘It’s so much funnier because you’re believing it, 100%.’”

When I was trying to identify the moment of humanity in the first scene, I had a hard time identifying why I liked the heroine so much. She made me laugh, but I wasn’t sure how: Sometimes we like a character because they’re “laugh with” funny, and sometimes because they’re “laugh at” funny. Only certain types of “laugh at” moments make us bond with a character—the character has to unintentionally attract our laughter in ways we empathize with, often when a character is poignantly but humorously vain.

Lady Bird’s first line is slightly vainglorious: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?” We identify with the dissatisfaction, ambition, and self-consciousness inherent in that line, but we don’t really laugh with or at her yet. In the next scene, she says “I wish I could live through something,” which is also lightly vainglorious and poignant.

She then gets her closest thing to an intentional joke, but it’s still more laugh-at then laugh-with. Her mother is reminding her why they spend money they don’t have to send her to Catholic school:

  • MARION: Miguel saw someone knifed in front of him at Sac High, is that what you want? You’re telling me that you want to see someone knifed right in front of you?
  • LADY BIRD: He barely saw that.

As they used to say in the Borscht Belt: “These are the jokes, folks!” It’s a somewhat witty retort, but we’re not sure Lady Bird even knows that. Gerwig is having the actors play for emotion and throw their jokes away, literally. We laugh, sort of with, sort of at, but Lady Bird would be surprised either way if she could hear us out in the theater. The character and actress are just feeling the emotion and reacting honestly, and we find it funny, but that’s our business, not theirs.

This movie is a masterclass in how to write a comedy without jokes. “Cheers” writer Ken Levine wrote a great blog post on this many years ago. It’s a harder way to write comedy, but it can be the most satisfying kind for an audience, and the more emotionally fulfilling, because the actors get to be totally in it, facing inward instead outward.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: The Writer Gives the Villain Her Humanity in “Lady Bird”

One thing made me a bit uneasy about “Lady Bird” as I watched it. Kyle (Timothy Chalamet) is the movie’s caddish villain, but we first meet him reading “A People’s History of the United States” and we know he’s getting his hooks into the heroine when she reads it too. Later, when she accuses him of tricking her into sex, he attempts to change the subject by saying, “Do you have any awareness about how many civilians we’ve killed since the invasion in Iraq started?” (And Lady Bird wisely says “SHUT UP. Different things can be sad. It’s not all war.”)

But I watched and thought “Hey, I was the kid who loved that book, and I opposed the previous Iraq war when I was in high school …Am I the bad guy here?” But I could tell the movie wasn’t really saying that, so I wasn’t really put off.

Nevertheless, I was gratified when, in the DVD documentary, Greta Gerwig recounts a conversation she had with Chalamet, after she made him read a lot of political stuff to prepare for the role:

  • “And then he came back and he said, ‘You love this stuff!’ And then we had this whole joke, he was like, ‘The funny thing is that everyone will think that you’re Lady Bird, but actually, you’re Kyle,’ and I was like, ‘It’s true!’ Like when he says that thing about putting cell phones in our brains, I’ve definitely said things like that.”

It’s always good to raid your own life for specific details and gift them to your characters to make them come alive. Obviously, in an autobiographical coming of age story, Gerwig is going to give most of her personal details to her heroine, but she saves some for the other characters as well, even the villain—especially the villain, who is the easiest character to lose the humanity of.

I’ve talked before about how, in the opinion of actor Ronny Cox, all four men in “Deliverance” were aspects of novelist/screenwriter James Dickey. Every character needs humanity if they’re going to come alive, and there’s no better source of humanity than yourself. Thankfully, you contain multitudes. There are many people within you, so you can spread your humanity around.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: The Crucial Use of a “Holy Crap” Moment in “Lady Bird”

Wow, so right away, this movie “fails” the first three questions on our checklist:
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
No, there’s no hook.  It had to depend entirely on reviews and a funny trailer. 
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Not really.  The cover image is very slightly incongruous: a girl with colored hair at a catholic school, but that doesn’t really rise to the level of irony.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
No, this is just the writer/director’s life story, faithfully recreated with its original place and time, with the same stakes as the true story. 
This is the quintessential “small movie,” and it’s a perfect example of how to do it right.  Writer / director Greta Gerwig knows exactly what she’s doing, and she knows the risk of not meeting those expectations.

She could have generated some sort of hook, but chose not to. She could have amplified the irony of her real life memories. She could have transposed her own coming of age story into some bigger setting with bigger stakes (Post-apocalyptic! Learning how to overcome dragon overloads!), but she very faithfully stuck to the true story, right down to the year and city: Sacramento in 2002.

So how do you sell such a movie? Obviously, a big part of it is waiting to see if you get good reviews and them quoting them in the press materials. But Gerwig didn’t wait for that: She knew she had to add one moment that almost certainly didn’t happen in real life.* An outrageous moment. A moment that maybe no one would actually do, but we all remember feeling like doing it, and so it’ll delight audiences to see someone actually do it. A moment that would get a big laugh in the movie, and more importantly, in the trailer. A “Holy Crap” moment, in which Lady Bird jumps out of a moving car to get away from her mom’s criticism.

(In the script, she waits until her mom is slowing down at a light, but in the film they decided to push it farther and put them going full speed on a rural highway.)

Somewhat unusually, the “Holy Crap” scene here is the first one. This works well, as it also serves at the “problem becomes untenable” moment, which is always a good place to start this kind of movie. Obviously, her problems with her mother have been building for years, but this is the moment the movie begins because those problems have now entered the “life threatening” zone. It’s now an untenable situation. Something must be done.

* I wanted to confirm this, so I looked up and found this article, which confirms my assumption and backs up what I’m saying here:

  • Greta Gerwig wants it to be known that she’s never leapt out of a speeding car, even if the protagonist does so in Lady Bird, her acclaimed new film.
  • Why would anybody think she’d do such a thing? Well, maybe it’s because Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actor who plays the rebellious teen title star, does such a grand job of making us think of Gerwig, the popular comic actor (Frances Ha, Mistress America) who remained behind the camera this time as writer/director of her debut feature.
  • Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, Gerwig’s hometown. Her mom’s a nurse, she goes to an all-girls Catholic school and she embraces life with a unique sense of cockeyed optimism. Ditto, likewise, for Gerwig’s past and current life.
  • So the Oscar-buzzed film, which opened Friday in Toronto, is at least semi-autobiographical. But let’s clarify the car incident, which happens when Lady Bird is having one of her many “discussions” with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf.
  • “I never jumped out of a moving car,” says Gerwig, 34, during a recent Toronto promotional visit.
  • “I did get out of a vehicle once (during a dispute), but it was a stopped car. The car scene in the movie felt like, emotionally, completely realistic. Everybody knows the feeling of when you’re in a car and you’re fighting, and you want to push them out or you want to jump out, or some combination of the two. You’re literally trapped with the person in the space . . . I just always knew that’s how I wanted to start the movie.”